Ten rookies saw regular-season action for the New England Patriots in 2016.
The incoming class combined for 1,932 offensive snaps, 811 defensive snaps, 601 special-teams snaps over the course of the 16-game slate. And altogether, the group consisted of one second-round pick, three third-rounders, one fourth-rounder, two sixth-rounders and three others who went undrafted.
The imprint left by each inevitably varied. Some stepped into starting spots; some stepped onto the inactives lists; others stepped off the 53-man roster. But the overall impression would be a little more clear-cut.
New England found some players who, on what would become the top-seeded team in the AFC, proved capable of playing in year one.
Only two of the Patriots’ 2016 draft picks did not go on to log a down for the organization during the campaign. Linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, selected No. 208 overall out of Eastern Illinois, was waived during September cut-downs and was claimed by the Philadelphia Eagles, with whom he notched eight tackles over 12 appearances. And wide receiver Devin Lucien, New England’s final draft choice at No. 225 overall by way of Arizona State and UCLA, spent the entirety of the year on the club’s practice squad.
Four other rookies also finished the season on the practice squad, with one – defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton – seeing time on the active roster in between.
Now is a fitting time to revisit those who accompanied him in logging snaps for New England in 2016.
Cornerback Cyrus Jones
Acquired: Second round, No. 60 overall
Snaps: 147 on defense, 51 on special teams
In his press conference last spring, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio noted that Jones’ abilities in the kicking game – four return touchdowns as a senior in 2015 – “tipped the scales” in the Alabama product’s favor over similarly graded prospects. But the kicking game would ultimately be what tipped the scales out of Jones’ favor as a Patriots rookie. Jones returned eight kickoffs for 180 yards and 11 punts for 46 yards, yet accrued five fumbled or muffed returns in the process of his time back deep. Lost confidence, perhaps on both sides of the aisle, figures to have factored into why Jones was a healthy scratch for six games, including the regular-season finale. Jones concluded the slate having appeared in 10 games with one start on defense, where he registered seven tackles on a depth chart led by Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe.
Guard Joe Thuney
Acquired: Third round, No. 78 overall
Snaps: 1,114 on offense, 81 on special teams
“He’s going to be an inside player unless disaster hits,” Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia told reporters in May. But disaster did not hit New England, and the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Thuney, who operated at all five spots at North Carolina State before finishing his tenure at left tackle, didn’t vacate the left guard spot all season long. Thuney held up as the Patriots ironman until the first quarter of Week 15 against the Denver Broncos, when linebacker Shea McClellin subbed in for one down, and finished having started all 16 contests. His consistency in terms of pass protection waned towards the tail end, but his consistency in terms of playing time did not. A trickle-down asset from the Chandler Jones trade, Thuney has checked in as both an immediate and a long-term starter.
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett
Acquired: Third round, No. 91 overall
Snaps: 156 on offense
A redshirt rookie season would not be in the cards for Brissett, who started 26 games at N.C. State after transferring from Florida and redshirting in 2013. In wake of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension and backup Jimmy Garoppolo’s sprained AC joint, he’d file in for three appearances instead. The offensive playbook, as a byproduct, was a limited one. But the Patriots went 1-1 with Brissett as the starter, and he went 34-of-55 through for 400 yards through the air, while registering 16 carries for 83 yards with one touchdown and a lost fumble on the ground. Brissett did so, in part, while dealing with a thumb injury that required surgery and sent him to injured reserve. But as he made multiple road trips and was later designated to return, New England’s actions reflected as strong an endorsement as there is to find in a third-string rookie QB.
Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine
Acquired: Third round, No. 96 overall
Snaps: 288 on defense, 47 on special teams
Valentine’s name arrived as a surprise towards the end of the third round. The 6-foot-2, 320-pound defensive tackle had been limited to seven starts during his final year at Nebraska due to knee and ankle ailments, but the strength, size and athleticism he displayed versus Big Ten blockers and backs made him a fit for a Patriots front that’d moved on from players with a similar skillset – Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga. Valentine flashed in moments from there, entering for 13 contests and collecting 19 tackles and one sack. He’d miss time with a back ailment, but started the final two games of the regular season next to veteran Alan Branch over 2015 first-rounder Malcom Brown.
Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell
Acquired: Fourth round, No. 112 overall
Snaps: 538 on offense
While on WEEI in December, Bill Belichick fielded a question regarding Mitchell’s quick acclimation at a position in which the Patriots have historically struggled to develop through the draft. New England’s head coach proceeded to reference the football intelligence of Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch. “You know, Deion was probably one of the smartest receivers we’ve had in here,” Belichick said. “Especially as a rookie, he picked up a lot of things, and Malcolm has some of those same qualities.” That sentiment isn’t the be-all or end-all for the 24-year-old out of Georgia, but it’d give you reason to think he’s on the right track. The numbers suggest that as well. Mitchell started six of his 14 games during the regular season, and caught 32 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns. Branch he may not be. But as a rookie wideout, a trusted perimeter playmaker Mitchell has been.
Linebacker Elandon Roberts
Acquired: Sixth round, No. 214 overall
Snaps: 271 on defense, 19 on special teams
Roberts surged onto the field and into the backfield during his senior season at Houston, leading the FBS with 88 solo tackles and tallying 142 in all. And out of nowhere, the undersized transfer from Morgan State showed similar downhill glimpses when called upon this season. Roberts filed in for 13 games and five starts for the Patriots, and racked up 45 tackles to go with a forced fumble in the process. His playing time would accumulate sporadically, but for a sixth-rounder who once appeared to be a longshot in a linebacker corps manned by Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jonathan Freeny, Roberts’ downhill pursuit has proven hard to ignore.
Guard Ted Karras
Acquired: Sixth round, No. 221 overall
Snaps: 108 on offense, 81 on special teams
Karras’ first NFL start would arrive in his first NFL game, as the Illinois grad got the nod over Shaq Mason at right guard versus the Arizona Cardinals to open the season. Since then, Karras has yet to start another. But the sixth-rounder has been an active reserve along Scarnecchia’s offensive line, entering for all 16 games of 2016.
Cornerback Jonathan Jones
Snaps: 64 on defense, 307 on special teams
Despite seeing work at cornerback in only four contests this season – starting one – Jones has carved his place similarly to how fellow Auburn grad Brandon King did only a year before. The path onto the 53-man roster and the field has been paved by special teams for the undrafted free agent. Jones has taken that in stride, employing his 4.33-second 40-yard dash speed to eclipse return units as the Patriots’ primary gunner opposite Pro Bowler Matthew Slater. It’s a role that has seen the rookie, generously listed at 5-foot-10, in the mix for all 16 games. And between the kicking game and his recent looks in the secondary, Jones has picked up 14 tackles, one pass deflection and one forced fumble in 2016.
Running back D.J. Foster
Snaps: 16 on offense, 10 on special teams
The Patriots waived Foster to clear room for claimed defensive tackle Darius Kilgo in late November, but after tight end Rob Gronkowski was placed on injured reserve in early December, the back-turned-wideout-turned-back was again elevated to the 53. In a stable headlined by LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, James White and core special-teamer Brandon Bolden, however, opportunities have been hard to come by for Foster. Arizona State’s multipurpose threat has played in three games for New England, netting seven carries for 24 yards, one catch for two yards, and one kick return for 30 yards.
Defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton
Snaps: 41 on defense, five on special teams
The Patriots elevated Hamilton from the practice squad in October, and the Ole Miss Rebel went on to play in the team’s next two games while recording one start and three tackles. As the depth chart regained full strength, though, the 6-foot-2, 315-pound run-stuffer found himself among the inactives for eight games in a row before being waived and retained on the practice squad. That is where Hamilton stands entering the postseason.